How do you make a very American sitcom funny for a Russian audience? This is the question that Phil Rosenthal asks throughout his documentary 'Exporting Raymond.' Rosenthal was the creator of 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' the long-running popular sitcom starring Ray Romano. Several years ago, he was asked to assist in creating a Russian version of the TV show ... and he brought a camera crew with him to document the process. The results are often funnier than any fictional situation comedy.
Rosenthal opens the movie in America, showing us footage of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' to demonstrate how it was shot (for later contrast), even taking us to his parents' house before he leaves for Russia. He jokes that his parents' house was often the inspiration for much of the humor in the American sitcom ... and a scene with his parents demonstrates that he is not exaggerating. In Russia, he has to face all kinds of cultural barriers to getting what he considered a "naturalistic" sitcom off the ground. The costume designer wants the stay-at-home mom to dress in trendy fashions; the writers want over-the-top humor; the network execs don't like the actor whom Rosenthal thinks is the obvious choice for the title character in 'Everybody Loves Kostya.'
'Exporting Raymond' is meant to be a comedy and a personal essay, and was shot primarily for laughs. In between meetings with writers and producers, Rosenthal gets to know his chauffeur better and tries to find out whether the family-centric humor of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' will work in Russia. One of the best scenes in the film is a dinner that Rosenthal and his translator spend with a large, multi-generational Russian family ... who will toast anyone, with more vodka, at the drop of a hat. Some of these interludes don't quite work -- I never quite understood what the Britney Spears video-related sequence was doing in there, although it was pretty funny. I'm also not entirely sure why music from 'The Nutcracker Suite' was selected for the soundtrack (except that it's Russian), but it does work in an odd sort of way.
Phil Rosenthal and his humorous insights keep 'Exporting Raymond' afloat, both in voiceover narration and in the comments he makes on camera. Sometimes he seems a little too uptight; a little too obsessive with getting the pilot of 'Everybody Loves Kostya' to work the way he wants. But his observations nearly always generate laughs. He's cast himself as the main character in this sitcom-like documentary -- and just as he insists that the "Raymond" character must be comic (in a naturalistic way), he understands that he too has to be comic in the context of this film in order for it to be entertaining to an audience.
'Exporting Raymond' is being distributed by Samuel Goldwyn and will probably not be shown for many audiences the size of the one at the Paramount on the opening night of Austin Film Festival, which exploded with laughter during many of the documentary's funniest sequences. Still, it doesn't need audience reactions to be funny, and should play well on home entertainment as well as in theaters. You don't have to be a fan of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' to get a kick out of this documentary.